Featured Student: Yi (Daniel) Zhou

Daniel Zhou is a fourth-year MD/PhD student in the Integrative Life Sciences – Behavioral & Statistical Genetics concentration at VIPBG. He works in the lab of Dr. Michael Neale, Distinguished Professor, whose research focuses on statistical modeling software for brain imaging, substance use, and psychiatric disorders. Daniel was born in Anyang, China, and he moved to Canada with his family when he was five years old. With the goal of becoming a medical doctor, Daniel majored in Anatomy and Cell Biology at McGill University during his undergraduate degree. It was a class about the relationship between trauma and the epigenetic regulation of gene expression that sparked an initial interest in psychiatric and behavioral genetics. “That was near the end of my undergrad. By that time, I really liked the idea of exploring how our experiences are translated into biological processes and how that might affect the brain.”

It was this interest that prompted Daniel to pursue a master’s degree in Neuroscience in a lab studying suicidal behaviors. After completing his M.S., he pivoted to medical school applications with the intention of helping people more directly. “Studying gene expression in brains seemed a little removed from interacting with or helping patients directly. By that time, I’d developed significant interest in studying how medications can affect people’s brains. I wanted to help understand how behavioral or medical interventions can shape psychology, mental health, and the brain. I was set on pursuing research or becoming a clinician that could study these topics.” He has currently completed his first two years of medical school and is in the research portion of his combined MD/PhD training.

Daniel’s dissertation work extends from the research conducted during his Master’s degree, studying suicide behaviors with a focus on adolescent populations. His research aims to determine whether a causal relationship exists between changes in brain structure and suicidal ideation or behaviors. This project leverages data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study, a longitudinal, multi-site study that VCU faculty participate in. “The idea is this: are there differences in the rate that the brain changes in the adolescents who develop suicide behaviors?” Another area of interest for Daniel is the clinical potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and ketamine to treat psychiatric illnesses.

When he’s not working in the lab or studying for medical school, Daniel likes to keep in touch with his brother in Canada. One way they do this is by playing video games together. Recently, the brothers have been playing Sons of the Forest, a Halloween-appropriate survival horror game. Daniel also enjoys playing squash with VIPBG trainees and faculty members. He’s been improving his game rapidly, but he did note that it’s a VIPBG rite of passage to lose at squash against Dr. Brien Riley. Many thanks to Daniel for sitting down for an interview, and we wish him the best with his research.


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